Denise Elizabeth Teo is a Senior Clinical Dietitian at National University Hospital with a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics, which she attained under the Health Science Scholarship (now known as the Healthcare Merit Award).
Denise opened our interview with a frank confession: "I knew I wasn't suited to being a doctor or nurse because I did not like seeing blood or open wounds, so those two careers were definitely not on my list."
But a key characteristic of the healthcare sector is the wide spectrum of specialisations available, including radiography, speech therapy and physiotherapy, each playing a vital role in the system that keeps us healthy. So, a simple fear of blood was no barrier for Denise and her desire to embark on a career in healthcare.
After all, the chance to save lives far outweighed such a small reservation.
"Working in healthcare means that I positively impact the lifestyle and health of my patients – I think this was the number one reason that attracted me to healthcare," she said.
"Another characteristic which attracted me is the multidisciplinary nature of the industry, where every member of the patient care team plays a crucial role in the care of a patient."
But where in this "team" was the position for her? Denise spent her pre-university days in research, searching for a specialisation that would fit her interests.
Then, she discovered her calling: "Of all the other healthcare professions, dietetics caught my eye as nutrition was always something I was into. When I was young, I struggled a bit with my weight like many teenage girls do, but I eventually overcame it with a lot of research into nutrition."
"This kick-started my interest in dietetics, and I haven't looked back since!"
Good Diets Make For Good Recovery
Today, she is a Senior Clinical Dietitian at National University Hospital (NUH), providing dietary counselling for illnesses and chronic diseases or nutritional support recovering patients.
When we expressed how little we knew about the profession, Denise was surprised – and eager to educate.
"Dietitians play an important role!" she exclaimed. "Primarily, we recommend specific diets that are tailored to patients' individual needs and medical conditions. We also support those who are malnourished or do not have sufficient nutrients to enhance their energy intake so that they can recover as quickly as possible."
As many people may confuse a hospital dietitian for a nutritionist or vice versa, she provided an example to explain the difference.
"In order to practice as a dietitian in Singapore, you would need to have a qualified Bachelor's degree. Dietitians are able to work in a hospital as they are trained specifically to work with people with medical conditions," said Denise. She went on to elaborate that nutritionists mainly work in public or community health, pharmaceutical, education or media positions.
Her clear description showed her mentoring and training abilities, which are part of her duties coaching junior dietitians as a senior in the field.
Research, Outreach and Teaching Others
When asked about projects beyond her main role, Denise proceeded to recount a varying amount of other work. As part of continual development for NUH, she evaluates the effectiveness of clinical protocols in patient outcomes, reviews scientific literature to compare local management with other countries' guidelines, and is involved in quality improvement projects in the hospital to better improve patient care.
Research topics included clinical refeeding protocol for patients who were admitted for the treatment of Eating Disorders. Denise also worked on improving the SOPs within the ward level with the input of nurses and other staff.
And that is not all. Pre-COVID-19, she hosted cooking classes for caregivers, provided talks to students in schools and organised workshops for parents and kids who struggle with obesity.
"These community events are possibly my favourite part of my job - I love getting to work with people on such a personal level, and helping them in a practical way!" she smiled.
Her love for meaningful conversation shines in her mentoring style as well, as she guides junior dietitians as part of her role. Described as "active listening", she engages her mentees by asking them open-ended questions and finding out their views before brainstorming alternative methods with them.
It has yielded great results - effective in building rapport with her juniors while guiding them to becoming effective practitioners themselves.
Diverse Careers with Strong Support
Denise has come a long way in her chosen career to her current success. She credits her smooth career progression to MOHH's targeted support, starting with her being awarded the Health Science Scholarship (HSS) in 2008.
At that time, Singapore did not offer any local dietetics degrees. Hence, MOHH stepped in to help her pursue her Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics at Flinders University in Australia. "Without the scholarship, I would not have been able to pursue my dream career in dietetics simply because we would not have been able to afford it," reflected Denise.
There were also other scholar-specific opportunities, such as an orientation program where they were sent on a camp to Outward Bound Singapore. There, Denise received a thorough grounding in teamwork and leadership skills, and made some vital professional connections that would prove useful in her later inter-hospital work.
One thing is for certain: without the support, Denise would not be the dietitian - and a successful one - she is today.
A Unique Opportunity in Healthcare
The healthcare scene has come a long way since Denise's first steps as a HSS recipient, but one thing remains the same: there is always support for those keen to pursue a career in this fulfilling sector. A plethora of awards and sponsorships and a multitude of career possibilities await any prospective healthcare professional.
If you feel the calling to help others, follow your passion as Denise did and make a difference!